The Dirt: Jeff Tremaine, DP Toby Oliver, and FotoKem’s Alastor Arnold on Achieving an Authentic ’80s in Their Metal Biopic

Based on the bestselling autobiography The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band, Netflix’s latest production The Dirt is a rollicking ride through a time when the excesses of the 1980s were in full swing, and Mötley Crüe partied harder than the rest of them.

Achieving the look of this oft-referenced (and parodied) time period was a tricky task for moviemaker Jeff Tremaine and DP Toby Oliver. Fortunately, FotoKem’s digital intermediate colorist Alastor Arnold worked closely with the two throughout the post-production process, adding digital grain of varying intensities, as well as draining the color from the band members’ faces as they spiral deeper into a pool of addiction. MovieMaker spoke with Tremaine, Oliver, and Arnold about the collaborative process of bringing this larger-than-life story to the screen.

Chris Villalta, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Jeff and Toby, what kind of conversations did you have about the visuals of The Dirt before you shot it, in terms of how it would be achieved practically and creatively?

Toby Oliver (TO): There were definitely elements of Boogie Nights in particular that were a touchstone for us and acted as a starting point.

Jeff Tremaine (JT): Boogie Nights is a movie, in my mind, that got a loud scene in a loud time period right. We wanted to use that as this is how to do it right, and we had a few examples of how to do it wrong. We were trying to fly on the right side of the tracks.

I didn’t want it at all to feel like a documentary, but I also didn’t want it to feel too slick.

TO: We wanted to make sure we captured the authenticity of the world those guys lived in and it wasn’t particularly slick, especially the early days. We were very careful not to have it be too sanitized in the way it looked, but then also give it the big punch in those big concert scenes and later on in the movie with some of the opulence that they did live in. We wanted to accurately reflect that with the look of the movie.

JT: Toby introduced me to anamorphic lenses to give it a stylistically vintage look.

Daniel Webber as Vince Neil, Douglas Booth as Nikki Sixx, Colson Baker as Tommy Lee and Iwan Rheon as Mick Mars in The Dirt. Photograph by Jake Giles Netter, courtesy of Netflix

TO: So many movies from the ’80s used classic anamorphic photography. I find anamorphic is a really cinematic format when coupled up with digital cameras and many people are shooting that way now. It was particularly appropriate for this movie to have that big screen sort of movie look that was around in the ’80s.

JT: If you’ve seen my previous work, we’re lucky if the cameraman hits the record button, so adding lights and that kind of shit is all Toby.

Beyond Toby, our production designer Melanie Jones got everything to look great and also our costumer [Christine Wada]. We all cared about this world and getting the period right, because the ’80s often look so cartoony. This is the era that people dress up for at Halloween and make fun. We’re making a movie right in that zone, and it could so easily feel like a dress up party or a parody or satire of it. We didn’t want that at all so in a way we toned it down, but we also made it more real like we were all there in the ’80s. We’re old. We lived it.

TO: When you were growing up in that era it wasn’t this funny parody; it wasn’t some crazy costume-y thing, it was real. That’s what we tried to recreate, the world around these guys that was real in the ’80s.

JT: The hair had me scared shitless in this movie. We hired Anne Morgan and paid a lot of money for the hair not to feel like a bunch of actors wearing wigs.

MM: Alastor, were you involved in these conversations or did your involvement come in after the shoot? 

Alastor Arnold (AA): I came on after the shoot, but we had these discussions prior to starting the DI (Digital Intermediate) and then enhanced the look further in the suite.

JT: Alastor came in and saw what we were doing as far as shooting on anamorphic lenses and giving it more of an ’80s film quality and introduced us to this grain technology that they’ve developed at FotoKem, so we added a lot of film grain.

TO: It was not only film grain but also a LUT, a lookup table that simulated the film stock rather than the native digital look. We shot the movie on the latest RED MONSTRO 8K VV and by the time Alastor had worked his magic on the images in the DI we were looking at something cinematic and filmic and totally appropriate for the show. It’s quite a transformation. We all fell in love with that look straight away. That’s something during production that we were trying to lean it in the direction of, and it was Alastor and FotoKem that took us to that next level.

AA: Initially, I could tell it wasn’t a parody, so it was about riding that line between giving it a more vintage feel but making it feel real at the same time too and not overstepping this line. We adjusted the grain in different scenes, so when Jeff wanted things to feel a little more gnarly we would crank the grain or use like a thicker 16mm grain whereas a lot of the movie sat in more of a fine grain. And we added halation to the entire film as well.

Star Daniel Webber (L) and director Jeff Tremaine (R) on the set of The Dirt. Photograph by Jake Giles Netter, courtesy of Netflix

TO: That was the secret sauce that blew me away–this simulated film halation in the highlights. The whole movie has that halation effect throughout. We didn’t have it in the dailies and certainly not out of the camera. It was applied in the DI and really transforms it to make it feel like you were there.

It’s not a heavy-handed effect. It’s fairly subtle, but it’s there to wrap the whole movie, and it’s simply a lovely icing on the cake that is a bit vintage, but again isn’t an obvious, heavy, “Oh, wow we’re gonna make this feel like an old movie” look, because the whole movie feels contemporary in a way.

AA: Getting back to what Jeff mentioned about not making things look too slick, Toby gave me a lot of guidance to embrace things being a little off or letting things get slightly polluted. It never felt too polished where all of the scenes looked and felt the same. Some scenes were green or blue or warm or cool. Toby didn’t want everything to just look like one reference image.

TO: That’s something I’ve tried to stick to on my other projects, outside The Dirt as well. I’m not a fan of homogenizing every image in a movie to make it look exactly the same. I like a little grit here and there where’s it’s not quite perfect—some scenes a bit greenish, some scenes where the greens go away. It makes it feel–even though we’re making a movie as an artifice–a bit more like real life. The image doesn’t have to be so slickly perfect and micromanaged every step of the way.

AA: It was nice to think of an overarching color theory or concept, but also move it around from scene to scene. I had a lot of fun, especially with the dirty apartment stuff and the opening scene—giving them their own life and emotion with the different hues and palettes that Toby decided on.

TO: We had a color arc with Melanie Jones, that started off with the movie in the 1980–1982 era which were coming out of the late ’70s post-punk vibes. Red, yellow, and black were the colors we were dealing with here. Later in the movie when the guys had found their success and their excess and moved into big houses in the mid to late ’80s we went into pastels, pinks, monos, and cool blues that sort of epitomize that era. So we planned these color arcs during the movie that were built into the lighting and the set design and set decoration and then enhanced with Al (Alastor) in the DI.

JT: We also played with the difference between them partying and having a good time to the partying becoming addiction. We did a lot of color work and took the life out of their skin.

Cinematographer Toby Oliver, ASC, sets up a shot of The Dirt. Photograph by Jake Giles Netter, courtesy of Netflix

TO: We did that especially with band member Nikki Sixx. He goes through a terrible heroin addiction, and quite a lot of work in DI was focused on draining the life out of his skin. Part of that was–this is before Alastor came on board–devised with David Hall from FotoKem down in New Orleans where we were shooting. We created four different LUTs (look up tables) that we loaded up in the camera that could be applied to the dailies, and they were named after those periods of the movie. We had “The Flashbacks” for when Nikki was a kid, “The High Times” for when the band was on the rise, “The Low Times” when everything was sort of falling apart and they were going through their addictions, and finally we had “Redemption” for when they got back together. Those four color looks gave us something to hold onto visually while we were shooting the movie and looking at dailies.

MM: Going back to achieving the looks for different eras, Toby, what kind of lighting sources did you decide you needed to work with in order for Alastor to be able to polish the desired look in post?

TO: Like a lot of DPs now, I like LED lights because it’s so easy to change the colors. If you want to give something a particular color or look you just dial it in through the lamps. You don’t have to fiddle around with gels or put up different light heads. When we’re doing the concert scenes, the actual lighting is visible on screen, so we couldn’t use LEDs because it’s not period to the ’80s. In that case we used the old traditional rock ‘n’ roll Par cans with traditional gel colors. All of that stuff was lit largely, authentically with period lighting from the time. On the big arena show that we shot in New Orleans we had something like 700 Par cans in that giant rock ‘n’ roll rig.

MM: It’s been said that the colorist is a kind of second DP. Toby and Alastor, can you describe the working relationship between DP and colorist?

AA: I don’t know if I would go that far—I always consider myself more like a paintbrush in a DP’s hand.

TO: A good colorist is an artist who can contribute to the final product in incredibly creative ways that can make a huge difference. Whether or not you call them a second DP, it’s true that the movie gets made three times: screenwriting, production, and again in the DI. There’s a lot of opportunity for reinterpreting things, changing them, enhancing what’s already been done, and sometimes discovering something no one thought of and that can happen in the color suite as well. This can occur when you have a fabulous colorist who’s really in tune with the mood, story, and the feeling you’re trying to create.

AA: One of the fun things about the DI too is that a lot of the tools are so much more than color. Much of what we were doing wasn’t even color. Some of it was matching anamorphic lens quality to spherical footage.

Tremaine (L) and star Pete Davidson (R) in between takes of The Dirt. Photograph by Jake Giles Netter, courtesy of Netflix

TO: I find these days, especially with someone as skilled as Alastor, there’s a blurring of the line between what are considered visual effects versus what can be done in the DI, and while there are things that should just be done by the visual effects artist, there’s actually a lot of little things you can do in the DI that really can change some problem areas.

AA: If there were any problem areas, they were mostly related to the weather—stuff they couldn’t control on set. Clouds were coming in and out. The pool scene was tough, because it was cloudy on one side and blue on the other. There were whole scenes in the movie where we just spent time finessing things. I expected certain material to be difficult, but we all gelled pretty quickly and things were looking rad. It was just a matter of making things look more rad, as Jeff would say, and having fun.

JT: That’s an ’80s motto to have: “Make it look more rad.” MM

The Dirt premieres March 22, 2019 on Netflix. Featured image and all other photographs by Jake Giles Netter, courtesy of Netflix.

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